Michael's Crag by Grant Allen
Chapter VI. Pure Accident.
During the next week or so, as chance would have it, Cleer Trevennack fell in more than once on her walks with Eustace Le Neve and Walter Tyrrel. They had picked up acquaintance in an irregular way, to be sure; but Cleer hadn't happened to be close by when her father uttered those strange words to his wife, "It was he who did it; it was he who killed our boy"; nor did she notice particularly the marked abruptness of Tyrrel's departure on that unfortunate occasion. So she had no such objection to meeting the two young men as Trevennack himself not unnaturally displayed; she regarded his evident avoidance of Walter Tyrrel as merely one of "Papa's fancies." To Cleer, Papa's fancies were mysterious but very familiar entities; and Tyrrel and Le Neve were simply two interesting and intelligent young men--the squire of the village and a friend on a visit to him. Indeed, to be quite confidential, it was the visitor who occupied the larger share of Cleer's attention. He was so good-looking and so nice. His open face and pink and white complexion had attracted her fancy from the very first; and the more she saw of him the more she liked him.
They met often--quite by accident, of course--on the moor and elsewhere. Tyrrel, for his part, shrank somewhat timidly from the sister of the boy, for his share in whose death he so bitterly reproached himself; yet he couldn't quite drag himself off whenever he found himself in Cleer's presence. She bound him as by a spell. He was profoundly attracted to her. There was something about the pretty Cornish girl so frank, so confiding, in one word, so magnetic, that when once he came near her he couldn't tear himself away as he felt he ought to. Yet he could see very well, none the less, it was for Eustace Le Neve that she watched most eagerly, with the natural interest of a budding girl in the man who takes her pure maiden fancy. Tyrrel allowed with a sigh that this was well indeed; for how could he ever dream, now he knew who she was, of marrying young Michael Trevennack's sister?
One afternoon the two friends were returning from a long ramble across the open moor, when, near a little knoll of bare and weathered rock that rose from a circling belt of Cornish heath, they saw Cleer by herself, propped against the huge boulders, with her eyes fixed intently on a paper-covered novel. She looked up and smiled as they approached; and the young men, turning aside from their ill-marked path, came over and stood by her. They talked for awhile about the ordinary nothings of society small-talk, till by degrees Cleer chanced accidentally to bring the conversation round to something that had happened to her mother and herself a year or two since in Malta. Le Neve snatched at the word; for he was eager to learn all he could about the Trevennacks' movements, so deeply had Cleer already impressed her image on his susceptible nature.
"And when do you go back there?" he asked, somewhat anxiously. "I suppose your father's leave is for a week or two only."
"Oh, dear, no; we don't go back at all, thank heaven," Cleer answered, with a sunny smile. "I can't bear exile, Mr. Le Neve, and I never cared one bit for living in Malta. But this year, fortunately, papa's going to be transferred for a permanence to England; he's to have charge of a department that has something or other to do with provisioning the Channel Squadron; I don't quite understand what; but anyhow, he'll have to be running about between Portsmouth and Plymouth, and I don't know where else; and mamma and I will have to take a house for ourselves in London."
Le Neve's face showed his pleasure. "That's well," he answered, briskly. "Then you won't be quite lost! I mean, there'll be some chance at least when you go away from here of one's seeing you sometimes."
A bright red spot rose deep on Cleer's cheek through the dark olive- brown skin. "How kind of you to say so," she answered, looking down. "I'm sure mamma'll be very pleased, indeed, if you'll take the trouble to call." Then, to hide her confusion, she went on hastily, "And are you going to be in England, too? I thought I understood the other day from your friend you had something to do with a railway in South America."
"Oh, that's all over now," Le Neve answered, with a wave, well pleased she should ask him about his whereabouts so cordially. "I was only employed in the construction of the line, you know; I've nothing at all to do with its maintenance and working, and now the track's laid, my work there's finished. But as to stopping in England,--ah--that's quite another thing. An engineer's, you know, is a roving life. He's here to-day and there to-morrow. I must go, I suppose, wherever work may take me. And there isn't much stirring in the markets just now in the way of engineering."
"I hope you'll get something at home," Cleer said, simply, with a blush, and then blamed herself for saying it. She blushed again at the thought. She looked prettiest when she blushed. Walter Tyrrel, a little behind, stood and admired her all the while. But Eustace was flattered she should think of wanting him to remain in England.
"Thank you," he said, somewhat timidly, for her bashfulness made him a trifle bashful in return. "I should like to very much--for more reasons than one;" and he looked at her meaningly. "I'm getting tired, in some ways, of life abroad. I'd much prefer to come back now and settle down in England."
Cleer rose as he spoke. His frank admiration made her feel self- conscious. She thought this conversation had gone quite far enough for them both for the present. After all, she knew so little of him, though he was really very nice, and he looked at her so kindly! But perhaps it would be better to go and hunt up papa. "I think I ought to be moving now," she said, with a delicious little flush on her smooth, dark cheek. "My father'll be waiting for me." And she set her face across the moor in the opposite direction from the gate of Penmorgan.
"We may come with you, mayn't we?" Eustace asked, with just an undertone of wistfulness.
But Tyrrel darted a warning glance at him. He, at least, couldn't go to confront once more that poor dead boy's father.
"I must hurry home," he said, feebly, consulting his watch with an abstracted air. "It's getting so late. But don't let me prevent you from accompanying Miss Trevennack."
Cleer shrank away, a little alarmed. She wasn't quite sure whether it would be perfectly right for her to walk about alone on the moorland with only one young man, though she wouldn't have minded the two, for there is safety in numbers. "Oh, no," she said, half frightened, in that composite tone which is at once an entreaty and a positive command. "Don't mind me, Mr. Le Neve. I'm quite accustomed to strolling by myself round the cliff. I wouldn't make you miss your dinner for worlds. And besides, papa's not far off. He went away from me, rambling."
The two young men, accepting their dismissal in the sense in which it was intended, saluted her deferentially, and turned away on their own road. But Cleer took the path to Michael's Crag, by the gully.
From the foot of the crag you can't see the summit. Its own shoulders and the loose rocks of the foreground hide it. But Cleer was pretty certain her father must be there; for he was mostly to be found, when tide permitted it, perched up on the highest pinnacle of his namesake skerry, looking out upon the waters with a pre-occupied glance from that airy citadel. The waves in the narrow channel that separate the crag from the opposite mainland were running high and boisterous, but Cleer had a sure foot, and could leap, light as a gazelle, from rock to rock. Not for nothing was she Michael Trevennack's daughter, well trained from her babyhood to high and airy climbs. She chose an easy spot where it was possible to spring across by a series of boulders, arranged accidentally like stepping-stones; and in a minute she was standing on the main crag itself, a huge beetling mass of detached serpentine pushed boldly out as the advance-guard of the land into the assailing waves, and tapering at its top into a pyramidal steeple.
The face of the crag was wet with spray in places; but Cleer didn't mind spray; she was accustomed to the sea in all its moods and tempers. She clambered up the steep side--a sheer wall of bare rock, lightly clad here and there with sparse drapery of green sapphire, or clumps of purple sea-aster, rooted firm in the crannies. Its front was yellow with great patches of lichen, and on the peaks, overhead, the gulls perched, chattering, or launched themselves in long curves upon the evening air. Cleer paused half way up to draw breath and admire the familiar scene. Often as she had gone there before, she could never help gazing with enchanted eyes on those brilliantly colored pinnacles, on that deep green sea, on those angry white breakers that dashed in ceaseless assault against the solid black wall of rock all round her. Then she started once more on her climb up the uncertain path, a mere foothold in the crannies, clinging close with her tiny hands as she went to every jutting corner or weather-worn rock, and every woody stem of weather-beaten sea plants.
At last, panting and hot, she reached the sharp top, expecting to find Trevennack at his accustomed post on the very tallest pinnacle of the craggy little islet. But, to her immense surprise, her father wasn't there. His absence disquieted her. Cleer stood up on the fissured mass of orange-lichened rock that crowned the very summit, dispossessing the gulls who flapped round her as she mounted it; then, shading her eyes with her hand, she looked down in every direction to see if she could descry that missing figure in some nook of the crag. He was nowhere visible. "Father!" she cried aloud, at the top of her voice; "father! father! father!" But the only answer to her cry was the sound of the sea on the base, and the loud noise of the gulls, as they screamed and fluttered in angry surprise over their accustomed breeding-grounds.
Alarmed and irresolute, Cleer sat down on the rock, and facing landwards for awhile, waved her handkerchief to and fro to attract, if possible, her father's attention. Then she scanned the opposite cliffs, beyond the gap or chasm that separated her from the mainland; but she could nowhere see him. He must have forgotten her and gone home to dinner alone, she fancied now, for it was nearly seven o'clock. Nothing remained but to climb down again and follow him. It was getting full late to be out by herself on the island. And tide was coming in, and the surf was getting strong--Atlantic swell from the gale at sea yesterday.
Painfully and toilsomely she clambered down the steep path, making her foothold good, step by step, in the slippery crannies, rendered still more dangerous in places by the sticky spray and the brine that dashed over them from the seething channel. It was harder coming down, a good deal, than going up, and she was accustomed to her father's hand to guide her--to fit her light foot on the little ledges by the way, or to lift her down over the steepest bits with unfailing tenderness. So she found it rather difficult to descend by herself--both difficult and tedious. At last, however, after one or two nasty slips, and a false step or so on the way that ended in her grazing the tender skin on those white little fingers, Cleer reached the base of the crag, and stood face to face with the final problem of crossing the chasm that divided the islet from the opposite mainland.
Then for the first time the truth was borne in upon her with a sudden rush that she couldn't get back--she was imprisoned on the island. She had crossed over at almost the last moment possible. The sea now quite covered two or three of her stepping-stones; fierce surf broke over the rest with each advancing billow, and rendered the task of jumping from one to the other impracticable even for a strong and sure-footed man, far more for a slight girl of Cleer's height and figure.
In a moment the little prisoner took in the full horror of the situation. It was now about half tide, and seven o'clock in the evening. High water would therefore fall between ten and eleven; and it must be nearly two in the morning, she calculated hastily, before the sea had gone down enough to let her cross over in safety. Even then, in the dark, she dared hardly face those treacherous stepping- stones. She must stop there till day broke, if she meant to get ashore again without unnecessary hazard.
Cleer was a Trevennack, and therefore brave; but the notion of stopping alone on that desolate island, thronged with gulls and cormorants, in the open air, through all those long dark hours till morning dawned, fairly frightened and appalled her. For a minute or two she crouched and cowered in silence. Then, overcome by terror, she climbed up once more to the first platform of rock, above the reach of the spray, and shouted with all her might, "Father! father! father!"
But 'tis a lonely coast, that wild stretch by the Lizard. Not a soul was within earshot. Cleer sat there still, or stood on top of the crag, for many minutes together, shouting and waving her handkerchief for dear life itself; but not a soul heard her. She might have died there unnoticed; not a creature came near to help or deliver her. The gulls and the cormorants alone stared at her and wondered.
Meanwhile, tide kept flowing with incredible rapidity. The gale in the Atlantic had raised an unwonted swell; and though there was now little wind, the breakers kept thundering in upon the firm, sandy beach with a deafening roar that drowned Cleer's poor voice completely. To add to her misfortunes, fog began to drift slowly with the breeze from seaward. It was getting dark too, and the rocks were damp. Overhead the gulls screamed loud as they flapped and circled above her.
In an agony of despair, Cleer sat down all unnerved on the topmost crag. She began to cry to herself. It was all up now. She knew she must stop there alone till morning.